My broken (and repaired) body – an inventory

First things first: this post is a bit self-indulgent, possibly somewhat gross, (depending on your perspective), and long. None of these was intentional, but I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the intersection of the physicality of my body and my mental/emotional state in confronting this cancer. Saving grace: there will be no photos.

Some people have asked me directly and others implicitly, “How is it that you’re dealing with this so well?” The easiest response is always “I just take it one day at a time.” or maybe “What else can I do?” But, the more that I think about it, the more I feel like my body and its complicated history plays a bigger role than I had realized until now.

Before I detail precisely how and why that is, let me just say up front, I’ve never used the phrases “adrenaline junkie” or “thrill seeker” to describe myself. I haven’t lived a particularly reckless life. And, with the possible exception of some regrettable hair/fashion choices in my past (I’m lookin’ at you Rat Tail and your regal cousin, Mullet), I consider my judgement to be mostly good.

So why the caveat lector? Well, a lot of crazy shit has happened to my body. And, until this moment, I had never really taken an inventory of it all. In fact, I think my repeated experiences of physical injury and subsequently making it through to the other side over and over have led to the only plausible response: “How can it be any other way?”

It feels weird to even acknowledge this in writing. Like, what is this? Some sort of pre-destined superhero bullshit? Or, maybe it’s just that post-rationalization is very powerful. Maybe both. I don’t know. But, I have a hard time making sense of why/how I remain relentlessly positive in this situation without accounting for all the practice I’ve had over these last 41 years. So let’s do that. Here’s the timeline:

Birth – Metatarsus Adductus: I was born with this foot “deformity” that means that both my feet actually curve inward toward the center of my body. The curve of my right foot is more severe than my left, but they’ve both got it. As an infant, the doctors gave me casts to try to force my feet to grow straight. Every couple weeks, my parents (let’s be honest, it was probably my mom) had to soak them off in a bath and take me in to get new ones as my feet grew. Apparently, in the intervening time, I just laid on my stomach, knees bent, casts in the air, clicking them together making plaster dust in my crib. (Even infant me was like, “IDGAF.”) Throughout childhood, I had corrective shoes, orthotics, etc. Nothing straightened my feet. Thank god my parents said “no” to a surgery that would have broken and reset my tarsal bones in both feet, effectively taking me out of commission for something like six months. Mostly, this condition has just meant experiencing a lot of growing pains, being a slow runner, and wearing out shoes kind of quickly. Could be worse.

Five years old – 22 stitches in my left tricep: For a time, my parents were stained glass artists with a decent sized studio (you see where this is going, right?). Well, one day, my sister and I were horsing around in the studio and I fell into a rack of glass. One of those pieces of glass put a nice v-shaped slice into my left tricep. The intern who stitched me up did so a little too tightly; the wound got infected; and the stitches had to be taken out and redone. As a result, I’ve got a monster scar on my left tricep. Some of my earliest conscious memories are of being fascinated with those stitches and watching the scar heal. Okay, yeah that sucked, but my little body was still totally functional.

Ten years old – Cracked root in one of my two front teeth: Sixth grade is rough, but it’s even rougher when you get tackled on the playground and your own knee winds up in your mouth knocking one of your front teeth almost completely out (Thanks, Mike Hall! Jeez.). Despite a nearly completely cracked root, an endodontist was able to save the tooth with a root canal and a bizarre procedure that seemed to consist of weaving chicken wire through my gums and around my teeth and then coating my front teeth with what I can only assume was food-safe concrete. To this day, every single dentist I have visited has been completely perplexed as to why this tooth still has not fallen out.

Twelve years old – Partial splenectomy, a lot of internal bleeding, and a close brush with death: From age 9 to age 14 my family lived on a lake. One summer, I decided it would be fun to try to ride a Jet Ski despite my parents’ explicit prohibition on such things (okay – I might be re-evaluating that earlier good judgement assertion). I think things would have gone okay if my friend at the time hadn’t also been riding a much larger Waverunner just behind me when I decided to turn abruptly. The crash that resulted sent me into and over the handlebars, rupturing my spleen and causing me to pass out in the water (at least I always wore my lifejacket). It took me a while to figure out I was seriously injured, but once it was clear, our neighbor (hi, Karen!) took me to the emergency room. (Pro-tip: projectile vomiting in the ER waiting room always improves your waiting time. You’re welcome.) I drank some barium concoction (every bit as disgusting as you’re imagining) for a CT scan, and seeing the results, the doctors rushed me into the operating room immediately for my first experience with general anesthetic. Several units of lost blood and many hours later, I woke up in the ICU with a nasotracheal tube, and only ice chips to slake my thirst (ugh!). This being 1990, laproscopic splenectomies were uncommon, and the AIDS epidemic was scaring the crap out of people to the point that doctors avoided transfusions at all costs. So, I left the hospital up one six-inch scar on my belly and still down a few pints of blood. Double-bonus: I had also broken two ribs (which they only discovered days after surgery). Accordingly, my ribs were taped, leading to the absolutely infuriating inability to scratch my healing incision. Let’s not even go into the latex “drain” tube that protruded from my side for several weeks. Needless to say, I did not get much time in the water that summer.

Fourteen years old – Nearly cut off my right big toe: My childhood friend (hi, Ryan!) and I had a lawn-mowing business the summer of 1991. We made good money. In retrospect, I probably should have used some of that money to purchase better footwear than the secondhand Patrick indoor soccer shoes I wore for mowing. One sunny spring day, I was mowing a slope the exact wrong way to mow a slope – me uphill from the mower, dragging it up and down the slope. One little slip, and suddenly I found my right foot on the wrong side of the lawn mower. I’m just gonna go ahead and call this little maneuver a “redneck pedicure.” So, it’s into the ambulance and off to the hospital I go. They cleaned out my wound, and I once again spent a summer mostly out of the water, changing wound dressings on the daily. Though it was a pretty gross experience, there were no significant lasting changes to my quality of life as a result. Also, I now have it on good authority that having ten intact toenails is overrated.

Twenty-two years old – Inguinal hernia repair: Nothing much of interest here. It turns out that I was (probably) born with an inguinal hernia that just went undiagnosed for 22 freakin’ years. After the “turn your head and cough” routine that accompanied every annual physical in my childhood it’s hard to imagine how this happened. Unlike The Dude’s (what? another “Big Lebowski” reference?), my doctors were apparently not particularly thorough. This was, however, my first opportunity to use the health insurance that came with my first real, legit, full-time, post-college job, and it was amazing. I saw a doctor, got diagnosed, got on the surgery schedule, and “hello, second (not entirely unpleasant) experience with general anesthetic.” Add one more to the scar count; subtract six weeks of freedom to engage in any athletic activity. Otherwise, no lasting impacts.

Twenty-four years old – Ulnar collateral ligament repair: Riding a bike in San Francisco is thrilling. There are great hills, beautiful vistas, other cyclists everywhere, and, oh yeah, rail tracks. Those f&!*^#g rail tracks. Early one beautiful, crisp, spring morning, I was mashing up the middle lane of Market street on my way to a professional development course when I was summarily cut off by a box truck changing lanes. Those of you who know San Francisco will know that the center lanes on Market are also the lanes where the streetcars drive. Well, I did my damnedest to dive out of the center to the right, but alas the tracks simply would not allow it. I caught my front wheel in the tracks and was launched over the handlebars. For some inexplicable reason, my right hand decided it wanted to stay behind on the brake hood and I felt a “pop” in the big knuckle of my right thumb. It hurt like hell in the moment, but I kept going about my day. Cut to an hour later when I went to pull a large book out of my bag and the thumb on my right hand drooped uncontrollably down toward my wrist. Turns out I had snapped my ulnar collateral ligament leading to a condition affectionately termed “gamekeeper’s thumb” (apparently snapping chickens’ necks with your thumb also wears out this ligament) or “skiers’ thumb” for the more privileged (and less medieval) among us. Time for yet another surgery, and this time I got a steel pin through the joint to immobilize it while the connective tissue healed. It took about six weeks of physical therapy and wearing a rigid splint, but now I can barely notice any difference between my two hands.

Forty-one years old – Seizure, craniotomy, tumor resection, glioblastoma diagnosis: Well, here we are. We had a good run – seventeen whole years without a traumatic injury requiring an ambulance ride and/or surgery. But, man, this is a helluva way to break that streak. If you’ve been following along with the blog so far, there’s really no need to go into any more detail here. It’s too early to render judgement on the outcome of this one, but I’m doing my damndest to make sure my quality of life doesn’t take a hit.

And, that’s the thing – even after writing all this, I’m still not sure how to make sense of it. My thinking about this post started like nearly every other idea I’ve had – in the shower. I suppose that’s only logical since that’s when all of us are inclined to most closely exam our bodies. But, everyone’s body is different, so a post about my precious snowflake of a body isn’t, by itself, particularly interesting. What really got me thinking was noticing that I’m one of the most vital and upbeat people in that MGH radiation waiting lobby (usually by a long shot). Why should that be?

I guess you could say it’s something intrinsic to who I am despite everything that has happened to me, but I’m somewhat more inclined to say it’s because of everything that has happened to me. Injury after injury, I’ve been surprised and amazed by my body’s ability to heal, adapt, and even thrive. Hell, last year, at the ripe old age of 40, with “deformed” feet, half a dozen scars, 9 toenails, and half a spleen, I completed my first CrossFit “Hero WOD.” The “Murph” workout consists of a) running 1 mile, b) completing 100 pull-ups, 200 pushups, and 300 squats, and then c) running 1 more mile. It took me 66 minutes, and I was the last one to finish, but I did it.

I wish it were as simple as saying “I finished ‘Murph,’ I can beat glioblastoma.” Some days I even psych myself up in workouts by pretending that if I hit some performance mark, it’ll mean I’ve vanquished my cancer. It’s weird, but it works. I’d say “try it for yourself,” but I’m not sure it’s worth the whole cancer bit.

Listen, despite my attempts at humor, I know that GBM doesn’t play around. I mean, what happens when your amazing, healing, adaptive, thriving, strong body decides to fight itself? I guess you can be terrified (I’ve walked this path – it’s bleak), or you can lace up your shoes and psych yourself up with the same conviction it takes to finish “Murph,” and get out there and fight. I choose the latter.

One Response

  1. This is an incredible and fascinating inventory. I had forgotten about probably half of these things. Your body (and your pain threshold) is a blooming MIRACLE.

    As much bodily grit as it takes to heal and reheal in all the spots, I think about the mental grit — what you’re summoning in those workouts. It looks all kinds of ways, but I wonder if humor at its best might be the finest grit, what you use to get a real shine.

    *pause to appreciate the extended woodworking metaphor*

    I know you’re mostly writing this blog for you, but it’s pieces like this that help me better understand and appreciate your mindset, and honestly, find my own grit.

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